Sporting Life

Debating lists is part of the joy for sports fans

Part of the human condition is to be held hostage to the cult of The List. It turns up in church (The Ten Commandments), dictates our diet (9 ways to look sexy) and, as a wise man put it, even when we leave this planet we leave one behind. It is called a will. Indeed, The List is so omnipresent that these days it is hard to look at a bucket without thinking of one.

The List is so powerful it has even sneaked into the Louvre. In 2009, amid all the art in that museum, the essayist-novelist Umberto Eco guest-curated an exhibition called The Infinity Of Lists. It dealt with art, literature and culture, though someone should have told him that no one is as besotted with The List as the athlete, the coach and the fan.

In sport we exist in a daily delirium of rating and measuring. We pore through lists of Most Goals and examine catalogues of Highest Pass Accuracy. We're riveted to tennis ranking lists and hostage to football points tables. From such lists is greatness deduced and a slump confirmed. After all, to certify Tiger Woods' decline, one must negotiate a list of 130-odd statistical measurements on the PGA Tour website.

The sporting list can be profound (10 finest acts of sportsmanship) and yet peculiar. In The Ultimate Book of Sports Lists, I found one on How Teeth and Dentistry Impacted The Sports World. But the best lists are purely fun for they inform, walk us through history, allow us a smile and provoke bitter argument. It is precisely what we hope our list of 10 Greatest Feats will do.

Ranking our finest feats, from across decades and encompassing various sports, is illogical and thus delightful. After all, whoever said sport was rational? As we weigh our picks on beautifully biased scales- many athletes were loyal to their sports when making their selections - all manner of arguments must be untangled in the head.

No list is definitive nor is it exhaustive. This particular one anyway is opinion not fact, a collection of sporting people using their knowledge and memory to bring order and arrangement to a chaotic subject. If you feel the need to protest strongly about our list please do not hurl the 10 plagues at us. Merely make your own top 10 list.

Ranking our finest feats, from across decades and encompassing various sports, is illogical and thus delightful. After all, whoever said sport was rational? As we weigh our picks on beautifully biased scales- many athletes were loyal to their sports when making their selections - all manner of arguments must be untangled in the head.

I lean, for instance, towards the confrontational theatre of one-on-one sport - say badminton - where a man such as All England champion Wong Peng Soon had to play his game and yet blunt a rival. He had to unnerve his opponent and not be affected, out-think him and not be out-steadied.

In weightlifting, in contrast, a man is alone with his bar, with no one to directly affect his outcome. And yet his challenge is scarcely inferior. Unlike badminton with its endless points, Olympic silver medallist Tan Howe Liang had only nine lifts and thus no margin for error. Unlike badminton, where the top seed may be eliminated in the first round, he had to combat an entire field of 33.

The weightlifter is also burdened by a paucity of opportunity. He is - like the swimmer, the shooter, the sailor - mostly invisible till he arrives at an Olympics or Asian Games. To fail here carries a four-year sentence before the next chance comes. But the badminton player has a year of chances, the footballer has an annual season of multiple major matches in which to score a four-second goal which we might never forget.

Every theory has a counter, every assumption can spark grand debate. In 1982, in a swim of liquid perfection, Ang Peng Siong went faster than any Earthling that year in the 50m freestyle. Yet one might argue that a year's fastest swim can come at any meet, on any weekend, against any field, but Joseph Schooling, chasing a medal at a world championship, must be his perfect self at the perfect moment.

Which is the finer feat, we might never agree on, yet we must tread carefully: To decide one deed is greater must not come by snidely devaluing the other.

In this calculation of greatness, every feat is broken down into pertinent parts. What was the athlete ranked, whom did he beat, what obstacle did she shrug aside (was she a tiny swimmer fighting in a universe of Gullivers?), which era did he triumph in? C. Kunalan, the sprinter, had no treadmills to use in the early 1960s nor multi-station weight machines to train on and this is the most compelling claim of older athletes: They came from nothing to make something.

They were part-time heroes intimidated often by a polished, professional Western world and yet they competed and were competitive. No sports science, so what? No nutritionist, who cared? In this adventure to be athletically relevant, they were Singapore's lead scouts with shower caps on their head - which is what some sailors wore in the cold because beanies weren't available or too expensive.

Modern athletes will doff their hats to this, but bring their own ammunition to this gunfight. They have superior facilities yet face ferocious competition, for events today are flooded with talent. At the swimming competition at the 1972 Olympics, 11 nations won medals and only five of them won gold; at this month's world championships, 23 nations won a medal and 12 won gold. With 190 nations participating, and over 60 represented in Schooling's 100m butterfly event, the world championships is not a boast but a geographical truth.

Of course, no list ever finds agreement and even at The Sunday Times sports desk we gleefully fenced and feuded over our picks. But even as the debate grew to a noisy close, two thoughts lingered about our list. Firstly, that it includes Paralympians, who sacrifice, hurt, train, sweat, cry, jubilate and what else defines an athlete? To exclude them would be to diminish them.

Secondly, the very fact that we easily compiled 25 feats - no doubt you'll tell us what we left out - to send to our experts to choose from is sweet and significant. It tells us a small nation has already filled a vault with authentic deeds. It confirms to us that on one point at least we should have consensus: we have enough fine history to at least warrant a list.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Debating lists is part of the joy for sports fans'. Print Edition | Subscribe